For years, Wheelock Family Theatre (WFT) has been committed to serving and supporting families of all kinds. Keeping with the mission of Wheelock College, which is “to improve the lives of children and families,” WFT has produced plays that celebrate the diverse range of families found in the world today and rejected the idea that the arts are only for audiences of privilege. By offering services like open captioned or audio-described performances, wheelchair accessibility, Braille and large format programs, Wheelock Family Theatre operates under the notion of “Complete Access for All.” This spring, WFT will be among a small group of pioneering theatres across the U.S. to offer an autism-friendly professional production especially for the autism community.
Going to see a public performance is rare for families of children with autism, as there are not many places that accommodate their needs in a safe, judgment-free zone. Individuals with autism are extremely sensitive to incidents of loud noises, bright lights, or sudden changes in lighting or sound. In the New York Times article “Program Hopes to Make Broadway Friendlier to Those With Autism”, Erik Piepenburg speaks with Lisa Carling, director of accessibility programs at the Theatre Development Fund. She noted that “Very loud sounds might be upsetting. Bright lights and strobe lights in particular, may be an issue because epilepsy is a complication in a child with autism.” All of these conditions can occur frequently in a theatrical production, and so many parents worry that their child will not be able to handle the sensory overload brought on by the production. On top of that, they also worry about the judgment of other, typically-minded audience members. “. . . They don’t want people thinking they are bad parents because they can’t calm their child down. It’s so important for families who are raising kids with autism to feel they are in a friendly place” (NYTimes). This spring, Wheelock Family Theatre opens their doors like many other theatres around the United States, with their autism-friendly performance of Pippi Longstocking.
Looking at the production through an educational lens, it becomes clear that attending the theatre can offer certain benefits for the children who will see the performance. In the British Journal of Special Education, Melanie Peter’s article “Drama: narrative pedagogy and socially challenged children,” suggests that experiencing a narrative structure, like a play, can assist in developing the understanding of patterns and sequences in life, a skill that is often lacking in those with autism. At the theatre, children with autism can practice their social skills, like saying “thank you” to the usher who hands them a program or asking for the location of the restroom. As Dr. Amy Phillips, professor of Early Childhood Education at Wheelock College, points out, attending a performance allows for a focus on the ritual of theatre and the “repetitive, clearly scaffolded” aspects of the event. For example: this is the beginning of the play when the lights go out, or at the end we clap to say thank you to the actors. These are things that are common to seeing all plays, and practicing these behaviors can be helpful in developing a deeper understanding of cause and effect and sequential events. Keeping this in mind, Dr. Rhiannon Luyster, autism expert at Emerson College, suggests that experiencing something emotionally positive as well as such an event that involves their parents can be extremely beneficial for developing the parent-child relationship.
The autism-friendly performance of Pippi Longstocking is sure to be an enjoyable event, and Wheelock Family Theatre looks forward to engaging their community with this new accessibility endeavor. This special performance will be held on April 27th at 10:00am. Exactly one week prior to the performance, on Saturday, April 20th, at 10:00am, families are invited to a special meet Your Seat previw that prepares them for the performance, with a tour of the theatre and a chance to meet WFT staff in a relaxed, one-to-one setting. More information on these events and other preparatory materials will available on the Wheelock Family Theatre website soon, so stay tuned!
Written by Diana Young
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